Think about the holiday season — the way it looks, the things you do, everything about it. Decorating trees, baking cakes and cookies, Santa Claus, reindeer, snowflakes, snowballs, snowmen, giving presents, singing carols, going shopping, etc., etc., etc. ... But there’s one thing that they do all have in common. They have very little, if anything, to do with what Christmas actually started with — the biblical birth of Jesus. Christmas began as a religious holiday, but it has become such a part of our cultural universe that even many who don’t believe in any kind of religion take part in some of its aspects. But, perhaps because of its new cultural significance, we barely think about this change — let alone whether it is a good one.
Even if you don’t think about it, you can’t deny that the looming presence of Christmas exists in our culture. In 2015, a poll was run by the Pew Research Center, and later picked up by both The Huffington Post and The New York Times detailing the way that this change has grown, throughout several generations, from “the silent generation” (pre-World War II) to millennials. While the percentage of total people who celebrate the holiday has remained largely the same, the percentage of those who do so religiously has dramatically shrunk, while the percentage of those who do so culturally has dramatically grown.
Fewer people attend Christmas services, more people decorate trees, fewer people believe in a virginal birth, more people visit family and friends … the list goes on and on. But what interested me was that this list stopped at millennials, one generation before us. So, I decided to find out whether this change continued in Generation Z, and if so, what people thought about it.
To do this, I interviewed 20 or so students at Capital High School, asking them the same questions that the Pew poll used. The results pretty well agreed with what the Pew poll suggested — that the number of people who celebrate Christmas is as large as ever, but the gap is widening between those who do so in any religious capacity, and those who don’t.
In fact, the gap seems to have become even wider, though this could be attributed to the general cynicism that you find in most teenagers.
Everyone asked said they celebrated the holiday in some fashion, but only 40 percent said they did so religiously. The number of people who said they believed in the virgin birth was roughly the same. When asked what traditions they practiced during the holiday season, most people gave fairly predictable and nonreligious answers — decorating trees, having Christmas dinners, putting out stockings and cookies for Santa, etc. Only a few people said they go to church.
Finally, 95 percent of those interviewed agreed it was a good thing, and in no way offensive or wrong, that you can celebrate Christmas without believing in Jesus. But the thing is, all those interviewed did celebrate Christmas — one thing I was very curious about was what someone of a non-Christian faith thought about the holiday’s growing cultural importance.
So, in addition to the student interviews, I interviewed Victor Urecki, the Rabbi at B’nai Jacob Synagogue, one of Charleston’s high-profile non-Christian religious officials. First, he told me the change in the religious demographic, though not as big in Charleston as it is in other places, is very real; more and more people choose not to follow any religion.
He also said many Jews celebrate Christmas in some way (the less observant they are, the greater the capacity), even if it is only taking pleasure from others’ enjoyment of the season, like he and his own family do.
Urecki said Jews are used to being “on the outside looking in,” and that they are very aware of their status as minorities. This, according to him, is one of the greatest things America could do to improve — become more aware of its own diversity. We are a country of immigrants and people of all walks of life, and we need to stop trying to ignore that. And, according to Urecki, this connects in a big way to an issue that came up recently during Charleston’s preparations for Christmas — the possible changing of the name of the Christmas Parade.
For those of you who don’t know, about a two months ago, the parade was planned to be called the “Winter Parade” not “Christmas Parade,” but after enormous backlash, the idea was dropped.
I talked to Urecki about his views on the parade, and what he said was pretty interesting. Again, he returned to the idea that minorities are “used to it,” and stated that the final decision to not change the name was something he expected. He went on to compliment Mayor Amy Goodwin on her willingness to try to make such changes, but admitted that it was not something he felt was worth much of an argument over. Though he does wish we could be more open, he isn’t offended by the importance of Christmas in our culture, and here in Charleston — once again, he enjoys others’ enjoyment of it, and the religious faith that they are willing to show.
I also wanted to interview the mayor herself, to find out what her views on all this. Goodwin agreed with a lot of what Urecki said. She was raised Catholic, but she has never viewed Christmas as an exclusively religious holiday. She supported the idea that we needed to become more aware of our own diversity, and listed this as the main reason for the decision to change the holiday parade.
According to Goodwin, the upcoming change was posted on social media one evening, and before the next morning, it had received a torrent of angry replies. She said that the reasons for most involved things along the lines of “trying to take Christ out of Christmas,” though a few thought that she had been politicizing a popular holiday — this, she said, was not true.
Unlike Urecki, she had not expected this much backlash (“the conversation about making the change probably took five minutes”), but she admitted that she probably should have. West Virginia is still predominantly Christian, but according to Goodwin, changes are starting to occur — not so much in faith itself, but in that as new generations grow, they become more open and accepting.
Our generation is colorful, diverse and, most importantly, the next one. We get to make the world, and, according to Goodwin, it looks like it will be a good one. The results of my interviews agree — hardly anyone cares about what your faith is at all.
So, the parade name, for better or worse, is still the same. And that’s fine. Like Rabbi Urecki said, it’s not something that’s worth having a massive fight over. But it’s important we learn to accept our diversity. It’s important, like Mayor Goodwin said, to be accepting and kind — and just about any religion you can be a part of will say that too. We as a generation are doing that, and just need to keep doing that. Enjoy the season in any way you want to.